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The shape of things 
to come

by Liesl Graz

India, a land of many symbols, uses the red cross.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent community has been engaged in a debate that could seriously affect its whole future: what emblem, or emblems, should and can be used to protect the wounded, the sick, the vulnerable and those who try to help them? Is it time for a new emblem (or emblems) to be added to the red cross and red crescent? If so, what will that mean for the International Red Cross Red Crescent community - the Movement as it is often called - and the millions of people who work in and with it?
When Henry Dunant, citizen of Geneva, found himself caught up in the bloody reality of the battlefield at Solferino in 1859, nothing was probably further from his mind than finding an emblem for the institution he inspired. Just a few years later, though, the International Committee for Aid to Wounded Soldiers was to choose, almost casually, a red cross as its symbol in honour of the Swiss Confederation which was its host. With that, it found itself a new name and launched one of the world's best-known signs.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has used the cross from the beginning, but some countries and National Societies, while continuing to recognize the red cross, have decided to use the red crescent. A few have so far not been able to find an accommodation with the rules for use of the emblems as they stand. One of these is Israel, which wants to see its own red shield of David, or magen David adom, accepted as a fully-fledged emblem. Two others are Kazakhstan and Eritrea: they would like to use both a red cross and a red crescent, juxtaposed.

The purpose of this article is to examine the issues, to try to understand why so much ink has flowed and such high passion been aroused over a subject that can seem abstract and esoteric to almost everyone not directly involved.

Connecting symbols

Signs, symbols and emblems have no life of their own; they are only as important as the recognition they elicit. The red cross is arguably the best-known "brand-mark" in the world. Even in many countries that use the red crescent for their own emblem, the institution, the idea and the concept are still known and spoken of as the red cross. It has gone beyond being a sign to become a transcendent, highly charged symbol which translates into an emblem.

The red cross and red crescent are in the unique position of having given their names both to the institutions they symbolize and the humanitarian ideas behind them - the red cross spirit. This double significance is vitally important to all those involved in the international movement or the National Societies. It also explains why any discussion about the emblems entails so much emotional dynamics and any proposed modification arouses such strong feelings. The red cross (and more recently, the red crescent) has taken on a symbolic life of its own and become considerably more than a convenient sign of identification. In almost no other instance has the symbiosis of emblem and identity gone so far.

Almost from the beginning, and certainly by the 1890s, efforts were made to explain, and it was largely accepted, that the red cross was not to be considered a religious symbol; nor was the red crescent, once the Ottoman Empire had decided to use it (see box). A simple, equal-armed cross is one of the most common signs in the world, and goes far beyond any Christian symbolism. For Hindus and Buddhists, it signifies both the form of the universe and the bridge of time and space that links man on earth to the divinity in the heavens; the outline of a cross is often used as a basic plan for temples. In China it has, since very ancient times, been considered a sign of the uncut umbilicus that binds the cosmos and the original centre, an eternal link between the material and the unseen worlds. The Ismaeli philosopher Abu Ya'cub Sejestani assigns an esoteric interpretation to the equal-armed cross as an expression of the four terms of the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith.

The crescent, too, has known a variety of interpretations since long before the advent of Islam. Sometimes associated with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess also identified with the morning star, it became the sign of Artemis/Diana, goddess of the moon and the hunt, protectress of childbirth. A flexible form, it can be more or less open, facing right, facing left, or horizontally upward. The crescent on Ottoman standards was open toward the right, or the outside of the flag - like that of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Understanding of a sign or emblem may be modified through education or change with time, whether it be a cross, a crescent or for that matter a rainbow, a circle of golden stars, or Zeus's thunderbolt. No amount of intellectualization, however, can change the fact that the significance of any emblem rests ultimately in the eye and mind of the beholder.

An ambulance team of the Lebanese Red Cross, during the conflict in 1983. First aiders pay a heavy price in fulfilling their role.

Historical crosses

Markings for wounded soldiers have existed for centuries: variety usually made them useless. At the time of Solferino and the birth of the Red Cross in the mid-19th century, Austrian ambulance carts flew a white flag, the French, red, and Spaniards and Americans, yellow. In 1863, the first conference of the International Committee for Aid to Wounded Soldiers made it a priority to designate a single, universally recognizable emblem. The first proposal was a plain white flag, a sign of vulnerability since antiquity. Then the delegates added a red cross to the white field. The Red Cross was born.

Most historians agree that the design, a reversal of the Swiss flag, was chosen with no thought of religious connotation. A courtesy to the host government, perhaps, but the simplicity of the symbol was probably just as important. The Ottoman Empire, the major Moslem state of the time, acceded to the Geneva Convention in 1865 without reservations, and raised no questions over the next decade. Only in 1876, after war broke out with Russia, did Ottoman Turkey suddenly declare that although it continued to respect the red cross it would henceforth use the red crescent for its own ambulances. The official reason was that the red cross "gave offence to Moslem soldiers"; there was, however, another. For decades, Serb nationalists in revolt against the Ottomans had been using the red cross on a white background as a rallying sign. For the Turks the crescent was more than religious: it was also a vital cultural emblem.

The ICRC underlined the dangers of abandoning the universal sign but the Turks remained adamant. The crescent was temporarily accepted, until a proper discussion could take place. This happened at the Hague Conference of 1899, when delegates from Turkey, Persia and Siam proposed, respectively, the crescent, the lion and sun and the buddhist flame. Nothing was decided, but in 1906 delegates of most Asian states, including Japan and Siam, abandoned any objections to the red cross.

By 1929, Turkey, Egypt and Persia wanted both the red crescent and red lion and sun adopted as official symbols alongside the red cross. The Egyptian delegate emphasized that he considered none of them to be religious symbols, only cultural ones. The conference admitted all three, but to avoid future proliferation decreed there would be no more. In 1980 the Islamic Republic of Iran, as Persia was now called, suspended use of the red lion and sun in favour of the red crescent.

After the Second World War, with many new countries emerging, there was a lot of discussion about the need for new emblems relevant to the situations of the countries. But at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference that adopted the Geneva Conventions, the only proposal for a new emblem put forward was Israel's red shield of David. It was, however, rejected in three successive votes. Although the other countries eventually found an accommodation with the existing emblems, Israel has been unable to do so, and more recently Kazakhstan has had the same problem.

Protection and identification

Legally, according to the rules of the Geneva Conventions and the statutes of the Movement, the emblem has two distinct functions: that of protection and identification, both carefully spelled out in the conventions.

As protective emblems in time of war, the red cross and the red crescent have equal value. To ignore or to violate this protection could be a war crime; the same is true with the abusive use of the emblem - for example, putting a red cross on a vehicle that is carrying armed soldiers or munitions is an act of perfidy. By definition, the Red Cross Red Crescent has no means of persuasion other than moral to enforce these rules; it is totally dependent on the recognition and respect of the emblems by all sides to a conflict.

It is worth noting that in Israel's wars with its neighbours, the armies on the ground generally respected the markings of the red shield of David - despite the fact that it was not an internationally recognized emblem. That is not the point in the present discussions of how to integrate the Magen David Adom (MDA) into the International Movement. Whatever solution is reached, within the borders of Israel the red shield of David can still be used. In the closely overlapping territories of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, ambulances bearing either symbol may arrive on the scene of an accident - or what is prudently called a "clash". In general, both symbols are quite well respected. Stonings of Israeli ambulances, common during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, have become rare but Palestinian Red Crescent vehicles are still not welcomed by Israeli settlers.

Even in undeclared and internal conflicts, in most cases the protective functions of the red cross and red crescent have been upheld. Trained soldiers of national armies almost always recognize and respect them. Irregulars can pose more of a problem, especially those who are nearer to gangster bands than sincere, ideologically motivated fighters. Sometimes training consists of little more than giving automatic rifles to pre-adolescents and telling them to shoot anyone who does not look like them. One difficult task taken on by some Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and by the ICRC, is teaching such bands to recognize and respect the protective emblems.

In recent conflicts, fracture lines between hostile groups have increasingly run along religious divides; whether or not the fighting is actually about religion is not the point here. When dealing with raw, perhaps illiterate recruits, it is difficult to explain that those crosses and crescents are not religious signs at all and should be respected for their humanitarian values alone. Bitter experience has shown that the humanitarian values represented by the red cross or red crescent are not necessarily recognized in the mountains of Bosnia or Chechnya. On the other hand in Afghanistan, under the Taliban as under all the other authorities, the ICRC has been present for many years and its emblem known and respected. Whether a new symbol with no connotations, used as an emblem, would be respected in similar circumstances is impossible to know in advance. Those who favour the introduction of an additional emblem argue that it could be. Others fear that a century of education on the meaning of the red cross, sometimes subconscious, would be difficult to replace, especially if several emblems were to be used simultaneously in the same territory.


Indicative use

Besides their protective functions in times of conflict, the red cross or red crescent also serve as identification for National Societies: that is the gist of what is called indicative use. In order to have the right to use one of the emblems, National Societies must be recognized by both the ICRC and the Federation. There may only be a single society per country, and it may use only a single emblem, in accordance with international law.

The Magen David Adom, or Red Shield of David, is the Israeli counterpart of other Red Cross or Red Crescent societies. It is responsible both for the Israeli ambulance services and the blood-donor programme. It has not wanted to use either the red cross or red crescent emblem; under the present rules, that has made it impossible for the society to be recognized and accepted as a full member of the International Federation. The problem is not deliberate exclusion, only strict adherence to the rules as they have evolved over more than a century.

Kazakhstan's Red Crescent Red Cross Society faces a similar problem for different reasons. The population is almost equally divided between Christians and Moslems and many people feel that respecting the balance between the two is a major factor for national cohesion. Saying that the red cross is not a religious emblem is not enough, especially since it inevitably brings to mind the association with Russia and the former Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR (The Soviet Union had Red Cross societies in some republics: Russia, Byelorussia and Ukraine. Red Crescent societies existed in: Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Overall, there was a federal body called the Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR).

The Kazakh society wants to use both symbols. Eritrea faces much the same dilemma; however, since its government has now ratified the Geneva Conventions, there is additional urgency for their case for immediate recognition.

The question of accepting the MDA emblem has come up periodically since 1949, when the Diplomatic Conference that adopted the Geneva Conventions now in force rejected Israel's request for the recognition of the red shield of David as a new protective symbol. In 1951, Israel acceded to the Geneva Conventions with reservations, the main one being the name and emblem of its National Society. At the time, the only country objecting to the reservations was the United States.

As the question gained in interest within the Movement a working group was set up, in 1995, to find a solution to the problems involved. Six options were studied, and one was retained as a working hypothesis. The National Societies would, as soon as a new third protocol is adopted, be able to choose between using either a red cross or a red crescent as full emblems, or a new emblem which could incorporate a cross, crescent, or shield of David, or a combination of these. The new emblem would not be imposed inside any country; no country would be asked to abandon its present emblem. However, both for protective use - in case of war - and for societies that are engaged in any international activity, it would be available for use either alone or in conjunction with one of the other traditional emblems.

Meeting by meeting, the idea started to grow. Discussions began on just what shape would be chosen. It had to be simple to draw, easily identifiable, possible to combine with the traditional emblems, and culturally neutral. Was it to be some sort of a diamond shape, a square set on one of its points? As the ideas developed, opposition and support inevitably emerged, with more or less good reasons to back them up.

A volunteer gives blood at the MDA's central blood bank in Tel Aviv. The MDA is Israel's equivalent of a Red Cross society.











The emblem's visibility and its recognition are both important. Above, Afghan refugees attend a dissemination course in Peshawar.


Having such a neutral emblem, into which the Kazakhstan and Eritrean societies could fit both the red cross and the red crescent and Israel its red shield of David, would have the advantage of preserving basic visual unity within the universality of the Movement. The Israelis, however, worry that with a new emblem they would again be singled out. MDA director general Avi Zohar has put it like this: "If all the other nations give up their own symbols, that's fine; if not, we will be the only ones to use it and we'll be back where we started - with our own symbol lost." In fact, if the shield of David were to stand alongside the cross and the crescent and a choice were possible, the singularity would probably remain. With a neutral emblem, Israel would almost certainly not be alone.

In countries that use either the cross or the crescent, and indeed within the ICRC, several good reasons have been put forward in support of an additional emblem. However much one may deplore the fact, the Red Cross has in recent years known some bad moments, and been deliberately targeted. Whether that was, as some have maintained, an attack on the emblem of the cross or simple ignorance, we will perhaps never know. In Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia or Chechnya, for example, there were situations when the cross was - however wrongly - identified with one of the parties - and some members of the other side decided to attack it as such.

On the other hand, voices have been heard in favour of a return to the unique emblem of the red cross and no other. A recent advocate of this idea is Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress. And, speaking in his office in Ramallah in June, the president of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Younis Al-Khatib, said: "The PRCS has proposed, and I repeat, that it is ready to give up its crescent emblem for the cross - given that the red cross becomes the unique emblem." Whether that solution could be acceptable to all the societies now using a red crescent is a totally unknown factor. Indonesia, the world's largest Moslem-majority country, has always used the red cross as its emblem and, like others in the same situation, does not want to change it for fear of sparking off bitter internal controversy.

More than ever before, combatants must be made aware of the need to respect the emblem.

The birth of the new emblem

Two high-level conferences are due to take place towards the end of this year. They are seen as essential in order to ensure that the solution reached is firmly based in law.

One will be a Diplomatic Conference bringing together all 188 States party to the Geneva Conventions. It will be held in Geneva at the end of October (25-26 October), and convened by the Swiss government. The conference will be asked to adopt a Third Additional Protocol to the conventions, establishing a new protective emblem to stand alongside the existing convention emblems. It will have a space in which countries may place their approved indicative sign.

The following month, again in Geneva, an International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent will open on 14 November. Governments and National Societies will be requested to amend the Movement's statutes to include the use of an additional emblem. At the same time, the General Assembly of the International Federation will admit Magen David Adom and the Red Crescent Red Cross of Kazakhstan.

The best way forward

At the time of writing, no solution has emerged that is immediately satisfactory to everyone, and without it there could be a real danger of fragmentation. However there is still hope that, come November, the delegates to an extraordinary conference in Geneva will be able to welcome into the Movement as new, full members the societies of Eritrea, of Kazakhstan, of Israel and perhaps of Palestine (as a new state and therefore eligible for membership) - all at the same time.

Considering the facts of modern warfare, and modern life, any change in the emblem entails a complicated procedure. First comes the cultural debate, coloured by both emotion and semantics. Then, unless there is a return to a unique emblem, the graphics. Obviously, any additional emblem must be easy to identify and difficult to confuse with any other emblem. It must be visible from far away - even from satellites. According to the minutes of that fateful meeting in 1863, when the members of the International Committee for Aid to Wounded Soldiers decided to honour their host country and use the reverse of the Swiss flag as a convenient symbol, no one questioned the idea. The real significance was still to come. The question now is how to maintain the capital of consideration and respect concentrated in the emblem, carry it forward into the new century and - at the same time - take account of the political realities of the times.

Liesl Graz
Liesl Graz is an independent Swiss journalist based in Geneva.

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